Saturday, September 06, 2008

Those Who Forget History...

...Are Doomed to Repeat It

Speaking at the University of Alberta yesterday (more coverage of this will be offered at The Nexus in the near future), Stephane Dion took some time out of his pre-campaign stop to question the legality of tomorrow's (seemingly inevitable) election call.

"[Harper] gives a bad example to Canadians by not respecting his own law," Dion insisted. "Some constitutional experts are saying this election will be illegal."

But for his own part, University of Ottawa consititional political historian Michael Behiels isn't quite so eager to agree. "I am not sure [Harper] is a law-breaker," he demurred but suggested that Governor General Michaelle Jean should consider rejecting Harper's request that she dissolve Parliament, reportedly due tomorrow. "If she goes along with him, she, in a sense, is supporting his violation of the law. You're putting the Governor General into a situation that you should never put the Governor General in."

Certainly, when a government passes legislation, one expects that they will respect it. But when one passes a law with loophole this pronounced, one questions the genuity of the act in the first place.

Queen's University constitutional scholar Ned Franks would remind individuals such as Behiels that because the fixed-election law doesn't effect the power of the Governor General to call an election, it sets very little in stone. "The convention is that the Governor General only dissolves Parliament at the request of the prime minister," Franks notes.

And, of course, Behiels is right about one thing: Michaelle Jean certainly could refuse to dissolve Parliament.

However, one would expect that a constitutional political historian would remember the King-Byng affair, wherein then-Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, in the midst of a debate in the House of Commons regarding censure, asked then-Governor General Lord Byng of Vimy for a dissolution of Parliament.

This was, of course, in the midst of a coalition government the Liberal party was sharing with the Progressive party. The Liberal party held a scant 99 seats to the Conservative party's 116. A man with proper respect for Parliament would not have been serving as Prime Minister under such circumstances in the first place.

Byng refused to call the election and instead called upon the Conservative party -- under Arthur Meighen -- to form the government instead. King accused Byng of political interference, and campaigned heavily on the alleged outrage, using the episode to rally Canadian nationalists and anti-Imperialists to his side.

The Liberal party was returned with a majority government in the election.

At the 1926 Imperial Conference, King used the affair to help push through a resolution denoting the Governor General as a representative of the Monarch, as opposed to a representative of the British Imperial government.

Future political developments in Canada -- culminating with the 1982 patriation of the British North America Act -- eventually transformed the Governor General into a purely ceremonial position.

And therein lies the rub.

For Michaelle Jean to decide to refuse to dissolve Parliament -- a decision she clearly has in her power to do -- she would have to make a political decision. But the office of Governor General is not a political office. It's a ceremonial office.

Calling upon Michaelle Jean to refuse to dissolve Parliament is putting the Governor General in a position she should never be in.

One can like it or not like it -- and for the record, this writer doesn't. But the seeming fact remains that nothing in the fixed election law prevents the Governor General from calling an election, and nothing in the fixed election law seems to prevent the Prime Minister from seeking it.

History has already shown us that disingenuous politicians will campaign on the topic of the Governor General if given the opportunity. And what is a politician who tramples his own fixed election legislation, if not disingenuous?

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